Lollpoops in London

Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s Children’s Games (1560). Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

Joan Aiken: Dido and Pa
Illustrated by Pat Marriott
Red Fox 2004 (1987)

No sooner was Dido Twite back in London for the coronation of Richard IV (in The Cuckoo Tree) then she found herself back in rural West Sussex, and all this after long eventful years crisscrossing the globe. And now, no sooner has she met up with Simon — the boy who had taken care of her when she was a Cockney guttersnipe — then she is snabbled by no less a personage than her musical yet nefarious father … back to London! What plans does he have for her, and for what purposes?

On the banks of the Thames, in London’s East End, Dido is forced to associate with a rum lot of naffy coves, from the cigar-smoking slattern Mrs Bloodvessel via havy-cavy types with fungoid names to the slumguzzling nob the Margrave of Eisengrim, truly the most vulpine villain Dido has yet to meet. And then there are the fresh waves of wolves coming through the tunnel under the English Channel, overrunning Kent and nearing London with every day…

Joan Aiken’s wonderful imagination has purloined memes and motifs, facts and fictions from all over the place, making this instalment of the Wolves Chronicles as complex and colourful as any of the preceding ones. The context is an alternative Dickensian London in the 1830s, still recognisable but reflected in a distorting mirror. There are street children and wintry conditions, confidence tricksters and forbidding warehouses, and contrasts between the obscenely rich and the disadvantaged poor. But just as the novel exhibits a degree of social commentary so does it include the sparkling wit we expect from the author’s depiction of this world.

There’s so much one can say about this novel but here I want to concentrate on the figures who feature in its title, Dido and her father. Dido, as we now know, has a heart of gold tempered by pragmatism and experience, so while she doesn’t trust Pa in the least she recognises he has just one redeeming feature, and that’s to produce exquisite music that’s a delight to hear as well as a balm to both soul and body. Appointed as Kapellmeister to the Margrave, who for all his wickedness has recognised the intrinsic worth and beauty of Abednego Twite’s compositions and performing, Dido’s Pa keeps up a steady stream of lyrical and lively pieces with titles like Calico Pie, Three Herrings for a Ha’penny and Black Cat Coming Down Stairs. Dido remembers and treasures these melodies and remains entranced as she listens to them.

However, she cannot forget or forgive his callous treatment of her, family members (like her new-found half sister, Is) and acquaintances, nor can she ignore his naked ambition to become Master of the King’s Musick, come what may, up to and including murder. Can his artistic achievements make up for the loss of innocent lives and the continuance of social evils? How will it all be resolved? However it’s wrapped up Aiken fans will know that Dido and Pa‘s finale will be preceded by a rollercoaster ride, not just for our heroine (now around eleven or so years old) but for all those associated with her: her friends Simon and his sister Sophie, the new King Richard IV, the little mite designated ‘the Slut’ by Abednego, and of course all the lollpoops of London.

Lollpoops? The 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue tells us the term lollpoop designated a ‘lazy, idle drone’ and naturally this is how Mrs Bloodvessel and Twite regard them, but actually they were poor working London children, some of the “ten thousand homeless orphans” Dido is told are found in the capital. Joan Aiken balances the cruel treatment and utter misery many of these will in reality have suffered with the songs and games enjoyed by groups of them, and by their institution the Birthday League, a force for social cohesion and communication for lollpoops across London.

When Joan Aiken completed this she no doubt envisioned a natural pause in Dido’s globetrotting and a cessation in the constant flow of vile adversaries she had to encounter. However, clearly the slight figure of ‘the Slut’ (in the original sense of “a dirty, slovenly or untidy woman”) appealed to her, leading her in due course to write Is (also known as Is Underground) and Cold Shoulder Road. We weren’t to be entertained again by the inimitable Dido for a good many years yet; perhaps the melancholy theme of a distant and deeply disappointing father which gives Dido and Pa such a poignant core was too uncomfortable for her to revisit Dido’s existence in a hurry.

As is my wont, I shall be composing a series of posts to examine aspects of this novel, beginning with the series’ troubled chronology and then passing on to people and places, themes and culture. After that I shall be diverting to Midnight is a Place (1974) before looking at the adventures of Is, finally going on to Midwinter Nightingale (2003) and The Witch of Clatteringshaws (2004), the final two offerings Joan managed to complete before her death. Needless to say, there will be spoilers in related posts though not in any reviews.

14 thoughts on “Lollpoops in London

  1. Two fascinating pictures – the Breughel is a wonderful reflection of the story about the stolen childhood of the homeless lollpoops, and it’s a link back to the Luck Piece, the stolen artwork described in the previous book of the series – a very ingenious connection and one true to the Aiken imagination.

    How prescient these later chronicles are… Aiken (as in the current report by the UN Inspector?) reveals the terrible gulf in the kingdom, the obsessive squabbles of the rich and powerful, and the desperately inventive strategies of the poor and homeless.

    Looking forward to more of your insights!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Pleased you appreciated my choice of illustration, Lizza, I hoped you might! And, yes, the choice of Breughel was deliberate after the Luck-piece of the previous instalment, though it was the first image that popped into my head when I read about the lollpoop games in the courtyard of Bakerloo House. Joan’s social conscience is that of all of us who see the dire straits that a minority’s greed always leads the unfortunates into, from Thatcher’s acolytes to the architects of our current austerity. It’s not just the poor who are always with us, I believe.

      I shall tackle some of the intractable problems of chronology next, with not a lot of success I have to confess!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Here’s a bit of trivia for you to track down, Chris: In a recent LRB review (27/09/18), Freya Johnston writes briefly about Anna Letitia Aiken (1743-1825), woman of many talents that included “children’s writer”. Her nephew/adopted son was Charles R. Aiken, and they both were members of a “clan of rational dissenters whose achievements in literature, education and medicine spanned two centuries”. Two of Joan Aiken’s forebears?

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Hmm, I’ve been trawling round for a little while, Lizzie, and here’s what I’ve found:
      A certain David Akin (1640-1670) was from Aberdeen in Scotland, but was in America prior to 1662. His son, a Captain John Akin (1663-1746) may have been born in Aberdeen but seems unlikely; a Quaker, he was established in Dartmouth, Massachusetts by the time he married and started a large family.

      One of his sons, Elihu Akin, was born in Dartmouth, MA in 1720, and continued a line that went from his son, Ebenezer Akin (born 1761 in Dartmouth, Bristol, Massachusetts Bay) through Jonathan Terry Akin (born 1800 in New York), William Lyman Akin aka Aiken (born 1820 in Rotterdam, NY) through to William Ford Aiken (1864-1901), father of Conrad Aiken (1889-1973), Joan’s father. I note that the family originated from the east coast of Scotland in the 17th century, and that the spelling evolved from Akin to Aiken by the mid-19th century.

      On the other hand the Anna Laetitia you mention was descended from the London-born John Aikin (1713-1780) though his father, a linen-draper apparently came originally from Kirkcudbright, on the west coast of Scotland. Anna Laetitia (1743-1825), whose maiden name was therefore spelt ‘Aikin’, is better known by her married French surname Barbauld. My conclusion is that, if the two children’s writers were related, it would have been many centuries ago given their different geographical origins in Scotland and the variant spellings.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Me too! Dido and Pa is the last in the series I’ve read, I’m curious about the others.

      I love Midnight is a Place. I reread it a few years ago and I think it’s one of Aiken’s best. It’s also the first book I ever read which didn’t have a properly happy ending – I still remember how upset I was at finishing it, cried and cried and kept reading the last few pages to check that it was really true.

      Liked by 3 people

      1. I first read Midnight is a Place relatively recently, Helen, when the new paperback edition was issued a couple or so years ago. There are trademark Aiken features there, for sure, but also that lingering melancholy that you mention. I’ll be tackling it after I’m done with Dido and Pa.


    1. I can’t believe you still haven’t yielded to Dido’s charms and street lingo, Leslie! What I love about Dido is that you don’t have to know exactly each word or phrase means, you completely get the import and the emotion behind it.

      Liked by 1 person

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